Tuesday 10 September 2013

John Dengate Memorial Service - MC David Iverach, eulogies from Dale & Sean Dengate & Chris Woodland

Click on pictures for full-screen image

MC David Iverach

G’day and welcome to what promises to be a wonderful celebration. 

John was born in the North Sydney Hospital in 1938. Hospitals were not so plentiful in those days and his mother had to travel all the way from Carlingford.

He attended West Epping primary school, Eastwood Tech, then Homebush Boys. He showed early promise with sport and language. Then to Armidale Teachers College where his studies, along with most eighteen year old young men was interrupted by compulsory service in the “Nato’s”, the National military training program of the time. John was in 4 Platoon, A Company, 12th Battalion, 1st intake of 1957. He served under platoon commander Hereford. You can read his song about it on the inside cover of today’s Program.

There’s a great story about John entering the boxing ring while in the “Nasho’s” against a much larger opponent. John, wearing his glasses and with oversized shorts hanging past his knees sized up his opposition and in that classic voice of his announced ‘bring it on’. Fortunately someone of uncommon sense intervened and the bout did not proceed.

After graduating from teachers college his first posting was to Menindee, where he received some first class mentoring in teaching and life’s other pursuits. In case you didn’t know, John was writing songs and poetry all through these experiences. He did a BA by correspondence with the Uni of New England and was transferred back to Sydney to teach at Burnside Central School at North Parramatta where an attractive young woman called Dale Morgan was teaching. They married and moved to Glebe in 1964, where they stayed ever since.

John retired from teaching early because the game had changed in a way he didn’t like. Discipline had become a dirty word. ‘Protocols’ and ‘key performance indicators’ and such like were more important than making sure kids learnt what they needed to know.

He took up busking and continued life with extraordinary gusto. There are so many busking stories. Some people thought he was destitute and he felt they liked thinking that so he never corrected them! He made good beer money and was very appreciative of the generosity people showed.

There are so many things to say and remember about John that we can’t possibly do justice to them in the next hour or two. So we should regard this as the beginning of the process of celebrating John’s life.

Dale will reminisce about what it was like to be with this extraordinary bloke for almost 50 years. And Sean will share some perspectives on his and Lachlan’s experiences as his sons. I will reflect on the privilege of being able to call John a mate. We will only scratch the surface. Everyone here has something unique to say about John because that’s the sort of bloke he was. He cared, he looked, he saw, he listened, wrote it down and when the time was right reminded us with that wonderful voice. Without us being aware of it, it had the effect of making us look, listen and care more.

For many of us, the first introduction to John was via his songs and poems. Original words often put to the oldest of tunes. But no good as background music! They demand attention. The attention (or lack of it) that someone paid to Johns impromptu recitals on hearing them for the first time told you a lot about that person. Just sharing enjoying the experience was enough to start a friendship.

So we going to have a selection of songs and poems and we’re going to sing – because that’s what he loved, what we love about him and he was never happier than when everyone joined in the chorus. That’s how we’re going to send him off.

We’ll start with Christina leading us in ‘Take Your Bulldozers Away’. 

Discussions have commenced with the National Library of Australia to explore how best John’s contributions can be preserved and heard by everyone who is interested. Donations are most welcome to this cause which is very close to John and Dale’s heart. You may well be contacted about this in the coming weeks. Kevin Bradley, the Curator of Oral History and Folklore is also here today.

Now we will hear from Dale.

I need to say of Dale that the old saying that ‘behind all great men is a super woman’ has never been truer. Known unfairly as ‘John’s wife’, it was Dale that introduced him to the bush music club – the rest is history! And we all know John was not exactly perfect in his habits or self-discipline. Dale, you saved and galvanised him, time and again – we all owe an enormous debt to you. On behalf of all of us – thank you.

Dale Dengate -
My Reminiscences – Roisin and Cal, when toddlers helped me with my father’s funeral so they are here to help me now And they have a few words to share too. 

 Great Nana Kit with Cal & Roisin, July 2013 (Dengate Family collection)
Thanks for your overwhelming messages sent in comforting flowers, words on 100s of emails, cards and letters that tell me something has changed, yet I still find it hard to believe, as many of you know, John Dengate was larger than life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear a sudden knocking - and in words of a song we used to love to sing together – we’ll hear him sing Cosher Baley only joshing….did you ever saw such a funny thing before.

John, Sean & Lachlan, July 2013 (Dengate family collection)
Family and friends have been a wonderful support team in planning the service. Gathered round home and working on the preparations or looking after each other. Throughout the week since John’s death there has been tremendous support for Kit, Sean, Mandy and twins, Lachlan, and we do thank you all.
John with his mother, Kit, July 2013 (Dengate family collection)
There hasn’t been a dull moment in the house. Just as living with John, there has been lots of talking, music and frustrating moments when things got lost, but it has never been lonely

Lachlan, Angie and Wendy since she arrived from N.Z, haven’t stopped working round the house, making cuppas, washing up and clearing away. I think they took notice of the fridge magnet I had in the kitchen:
No woman ever shot a man while he was washing up. And we really miss John then because that was always his job.

Sean and Mandy have been putting together slides showing aspects of John’s life integrating Bob Bolton’s collection of John performing since the 1960s. Lachlan helped me select the music.

Dear friends have been generous and warm. David called each day as we planned the running order, old friend from Bathurst Teachers College days Peter Grislis negotiated with the
Friend in Hand Pub were the wake will continue. Gay typeset my draft running order and had it printed, Kate Scott lent us her wonderful painting of John which we used for his last book; if I thanked everyone individually, there would be no time to say anything else.

We are here to share the Last moments with John. He left us the way he would have chosen to go, although today’s funeral is different from the youthful discussion of what he’d like at his funeral, which were quite Gothic.
The Kevans boys would be there, Jacko and Dennis would have a big fight and fall into the grave hole with him, followed by Declan Affley, Chris Kempster, Brian Mooney singing rebel songs, ASIO inaccurately recording the union organisers, Seamus and Bobby Campbell and Bill Morgan starting another fight. Well the first four have already gone to have a rest or a song, but the others are much quieter lads from the sound of their recent calls.

However, John got the second part of that vividly imagined scene of his. My sister Jan and brother-in-law Steve rang this morning from a dismally wet Wales. They told me they had stopped their walking group by a bleak lakeside and had read one of John’s scurrilous poems on Rupert Murdock, found on Mark Gregory’s union website. With the rain pouring down on those assembled, it was just the dismal Celtic picture John had described in the 1970s.

As I haven’t been able to respond to everyone, I will try to answer a few of the questions most asked

How and why did he go
– doctors certificate says: myocardial infarction or cardiomyopathy over 2 years, but we have proof of the real cause. It was the dismal efforts of the Aussie Cricket team which he stayed up each night to watch, after which he would come to bed so upset he would be tossing and turning unable to sleep. Many will recall his song written after the humiliating defeat of the Aussie cricketers by Zimbabwe – I’ll drive to the gap and jump over old chap if we’re beaten by the Poms… and of course he was worried about the future of Australia, for which evidence you can refer to last song.

He died at home after surveying our Glebe estate, picking up the camellia petals from his much loved lawn and trimming a few blades of grass with nail scissors. He returned to the balcony and we shared our early morning cuppa and discussed how fortunate our lives had been, what a lovely clear sunny Sydney morning it was and what we planned for the rest of the day.

Although we usually pursued our different interests during the day we often sat upon our balcony and discussed how fortunate we were to have such a lovely family. We’d all been together on the weekend to celebrate John’s mother Kits’ 99
th birthday. Many of you know the song Bare legged Kate which John wrote for Kit.

We knew we were lucky to live in Glebe. When we got together to talk about the day’s activities and people we’d been with, John would have the most entertaining stories about the passing parade of characters with whom he shared the streets of Sydney. He would often pause in the discussion and shortly after, he would start a verse or song or come up with a new set of words or a play on the words he’s just heard. Really, when trying to decide what to say about John there were so many memories that came back as words from his songs and verses or I‘d be singing in the shower and by the time I came out he had a new set of words to the tunes. His parodies were unique in that he often played on the original rhymes, so that when I was practising
Poverty, Poverty Knock, my loom is saying all day… he came up with Royalty, Royalty shock, Give ‘em a cut in their pay. It made it difficult when singing the original as you’d often find yourself switching to John’s word, so contemporary and relevant.

David suggested I should explain to those not in the folk scene why John Dengate’s work was unique. Words were so important that he felt you should hear every word. Again, we haven’t time, but ask people at the afternoon tea, the wake or look on all the websites at the tributes that have been quite detailed. Much of his verse was written in the style of the bush tradition with its precise metres and rhymes found in Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson works. That is why we’ve chosen two for you to sing.

Also he was a political satirist, often using irony where the meaning of the words is often the reverse or not what they seem to be saying on the surface. The words were not meant to be taken literally as in that Aussie tradition of saying: Well
you’re really clever aren’t you? When we imply the opposite.

Indeed, I had occasion to say that to John, after he rushed into a caravan, where we planned to sleep the night, then rushed out leaving the keys inside and slamming the door. So as he wrote in
Terry’s wedding poem..’we had to sleep in the cold car.’ But that was the literal truth and he snored in the front seat and I froze in the back. People have asked me did he ever write me songs. He certainly wrote passionate letters, verses and sent me drawings from residential school at Armidale Uni of N.E. I came across some recently and wondered should I destroy these impassioned outpourings of a young man and decided to share them with John and we had a lovely morning recollecting the years.

His writing covered real people and his particularly his own experiences of life in all sorts of situations, many which are seldom written about as in
Rectal Bleeding calypso, palpitations, cardiologists and a stomer which rhymes with Homer. John’s observations of the world around him and an expression of his values are found in his work.

One of the questions asked by the funeral directors is about religion. After thinking – totally irreverent, I recalled John had won prizes at Epping C of E SS, but we both grew to feel that religious institutions limited the concepts of god, humanity and how one should live. We both believed strongly in the wonder of the world, loved the diversity of humanity and felt that it was not our place to judge how others chose to live but that social justice and equity should be available to all. But I won’t pontificate, as John, ever the teacher, had been known to do – just say John’s values are clearly written in his words.

Someone did suggest we might be politicising John too much, but as Colleen Burke commented –
You can’t over politicise John Dengate.

John was totally eccentric in more ways than you could imagine, but was always great company; we shared so much including our sense of humour and a certain cynicism about organizations, institutions

It will be hard to accept that things will change, but he will live forever in his words…and his grandchildren

Thank you Dale.

Before we hear Peter Mace recite John’s last poem I will reflect a little about John.

John was feisty. If you wanted an argument, you were never disappointed, if you wanted a fight, he was up for it, if you shared a challenge you knew he wouldn’t be the one to falter.

This resolute determination was exemplified in his running. Running became important to John when he became aware, on jogging back from a pub in Balmain, that he (and I) were terribly unfit. He resolved to do something about it. Over the next 30 years, John ran the 5km track at Centennial Park more than 1200 times. Once he ran it 5 times on the same day. And I can assure you that on every occasion he gave it his best. His fastest time was 21.25. In May this year, after his colectomy bag was removed after recovering from bowel cancer, he ran it in just over 39 minutes. You try doing that! He ran two marathons. He was underprepared for the first one and I thought he could not possibly finish it. He was out on his feet with 15km to go. But he would not give up and he rose up to his full height to cross the line. But he was disappointed in himself. So onto marathon number two at age 50. This time on Anzac day with the 26 miles back and forth around the old Holsworthy army barracks. This time he finished full on running in under four hours. Part of his training was doing 500 skips without a miss and if he missed he would start again – and when he finished that he would do over the punching bag!

But cricket was his great love and he was pretty good. He was a fearless opening batsman who valued his wicket – much in the Boycott style. His captain once suggested he try and push the scoring along today. John responded by suggesting, in that case, it might be better if a more aggressive batsman faced the new ball attack. Suffice to say there were no volunteers.

Golf came later. There’s a 4 iron on the coffin. He hit a hole in one on the 11th at Royal Marrickville with that while playing in a foursomes competition with his great friend Peter Grisilis. Peter by the way, following John, put his shot 6 inches away. John often thought he might have repeated the feat except that the trees along right hand side of the fairway grew larger. You have to understand John never hit a straight ball – a controlled hook he called it. John was not a pretty golfer.

The only time I saw John bluffed was by the bloody bunker in front of the 6th green at Marrickville. He swore it had a golf ball magnet and once his ball was in it, which was often, rhythm, humour, language and demeanour all deteriorated. It was best not to talk en route to the 7th tee.

John was a keen gardener. He kept the small Glebe lawn beautiful using used shears made from BHP steel. He used the same pair for 30 years until they finally broke and were replaced by a pair made in China. ‘Piece of shit’ he swore. Vitriolic comments about all Chinese manufacturing efforts followed! Lament about the loss of ours. Eventually we repaired the “made in Australia” pair and the lawn recovered.

I am not going to say anything about drinking or gambling, other than he had a fine palette for beer and wine, knew every pub that has Guinness on tap and had a lousy understanding of the mathematics of gambling – or maybe he did understand the maths but just didn’t care. I think one of the things he missed most on retiring from teaching was not being in charge of the punters club.

Peter why don’t you share his last poem with us – it captures a lot of that spirit.

John's Last Verse, August, 2013

The world is full of terrible things, the world is full of curses;
Royal babies, queens and kings, out of tune broken strings,
Bad, ill-written verses.
We have to cope with government's stealth, in vain we seek for answers.
We have to cope with failing health, with corporate crooks who steal our wealth,
We have to cope with cancers.
Pommy bastards, spieling Yanks ... the curses are unending ...
Half-blind batsmen, greedy banks, buy still we stand in stubborn ranks,
For all that's worth defending.
We won't surrender, won't give in, although our hair is greying;
We come from tough, rebellious kin ...
Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win ...
We go on disobeying.

Thanks Peter, now Christina will lead us in Freedom on the Wallaby. As we know John loved Henry and Banjo and this was one of his favourites.

Thanks Christina, Now Sean will share some memories with us.
John Dengate’s Eulogy
8th August 2013
Delivered by Sean Dengate

My name is Sean Dengate. I am John Dengate’s son.

Last year my dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer. In November I was visiting him in hospital. He was preparing for an operation to cut out part of his bowel in an attempt to remove the cancer. He’d just been through chemo therapy, which is not pleasant at the best of times, but his chemo treatment had completely messed up the medication that was managing his heart condition. In this state he was trying to prepare himself for an operation where there was no guarantee that they would get all the cancer. With the benefit of hindsight it was clear that I had visited him on the day when he was at his lowest point in dealing with the cancer. And at that point he thought he was going to die. For me it was a painful conversation to have but I remember him saying “well, if my times up, I’ve had a good life”. It was said with genuine conviction. He wasn’t looking for sympathy. He truly believed he’d had a good life. Now he ended up winning the cancer battle. The operation was a success, albeit his heart was never the same.

But it was that memory that got me thinking over the last week, how can you measure whether someone has had a good life? I think one of the most confronting and honest ways is to look yourself in the eye on death’s door and judge yourself. If at that moment you honestly think you’ve had a good life, then the chances are you probably have.

The other test is to see the impact you have had on other people’s lives. Were you loved? Will you be missed? Do people remember you as having a positive impact on their lives? As I look around the Chapel today and see a packed house I know John Dengate was truly loved and will be greatly missed. I know that because of the things people have said to me over the last week, I know that because I can see the look on people’s faces. I know that because I’ve read so many messages on different web sites. The message was loud and clear and it’s written all over every single one of us here today. He was a great man and he will be truly missed.

So he had a good life and he was loved by many. But the thing that has been occupying my thoughts over the last week is how did he do it? What made him a great man that was loved by so many?

I think one of the things that he did better than anyone I’ve ever met is that he was able to keep life simple. By that I mean he just put all his energy into doing the things he loved with the people he loved. He was able to block out life’s distractions and ignore the pressures of life, he held in contempt the conservative expectations of society and he shunned the commitments that lock people into a certain lifestyle that makes them feel like they’re on a treadmill to no where.

Let me tell you, it’s not easy to simplify life this way. A very good friend of mine, John Iverach, once said to me, “John is so uncomplicated, life for him so simple, and yet at the same time there is so much to him - there is a genius to this that I appreciate more and more as the years go by.”

I’m not saying he was always a master of this philosophy. There would have been times in his life with a young family to provide for and a mortgage to deal with that he would have been somewhat distracted. But as a son growing up with him you’d never know. Because he always had time to play cricket in the back lane and when the sun went down we’d move the game of cricket into the hall way of our house at Glebe. When Summer and Spring changed to Winter and Autumn we’d play football in the back lane and when the sun went down we’d play football in the hall way. Let it be known that the width of my parent’s hall way in Glebe is about 1 metre wide. Not really designed to be a 12 month a year sports arena but that didn’t stop us. There’s no doubt he would have felt he was on life’s treadmill for a period but I think by the time he got to his last 25 years of life he had mastered the art of keeping life simple, and it was always part of his make up. You could see it in his very core. The way he dressed. The height of fashion for my dad was St Vincent De Paul. The way he travelled. His preferred mode of transport was the sand shoe. Bought at St Vincent De Paul. The fact that he rarely brushed his hair…….. He was out to impress no one.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t care about people. He was a very compassionate man who had a strong sense of helping people, especially if you were down on your luck. He was a working class man from a working class family and he was a strong believer in social justice. In his own way he fought his entire life for the rights of working class people. He used his pen as his sword and his guitar was his assault rifle. He would line up his targets and execute them using bullets made of humour and supreme powers of observation. My dad wrote a song called
Bill from Erskineville. It was one of his classics and it showed how connected he was to people who were struggling in life. I know many of you know every word of this song but for those who don’t, Bill worked in a factory. He was working hard to buy a block of land but before long his deposit on the block of land was being spent on poker machines, horses, lottery tickets and beer. His kids were running wild and his wife was working in a bar to make ends meet. Bill was tragic. But for some reason you get the feeling that this tragic fellow was a cheeky larrikin who was a lot of fun to be with. You know, Bill was a lot like my dad and I think the main difference between Bill and my dad was who they married. My mum saved my dad from being Bill. He knew that. He let my mum drive the metaphorical bus of life whilst he messed around in the back seat with all the larrikins. He knew if he had to sit in the driver’s seat it was an accident waiting to happen.

So he worked out how to keep life simple ……. But that was only part of the puzzle. The reason this was important was the way in which it helped free up his time and energy to do the things he loved. People used to come up to me and say “
your dad has so much energy for life. He is so passionate about what he is doing. He’s always so cheerful”. I used to respond by saying ”Of course he’s cheerful and passionate. He’s just doing what he bloody well likes. If I was doing what I liked I’d be running round full of energy and cheeriness too”.

The genius of the man was that he actually knew what was important to him. He knew what he loved and who he loved. And they weren’t material things. It didn’t cost him any money to write a song, or draw a picture. It didn’t cost him any money to go for a run. It didn’t cost him any money to watch the Australian cricket team lose test matches. It didn’t cost any money to be with his family or friends, although there might have been a small investment required when spending a night on the turps singing songs with friends.

He knew what he loved because like everything that was important to him he gave it a lot of thought before he committed to it. As a result he wasn’t a person who chopped and changed the activities that he undertook. He wasn’t a person who chopped and changed friendships. He wasn’t a person who chopped and changed political beliefs or the things that make up your core values. He brought great intellect to everything he was passionate about. So when he was interested in something it wasn’t fleeting, it was deep. He had a long list of passions and there are a million stories I could tell about each one. Of course I can’t do that today. I’m only going to tell a few stories about a handful of the things he loved and that’s not intended to diminish the passion or the love for any of the things that I haven’t mentioned here today.

Music, song writing, poetry and performing were obviously one of his greatest loves. He had an almost photographic memory for songs and poems. This meant he could entertain you non stop for days on end if you had the stamina. The Chapel is full of people that have been performing with my dad and that have been entertained by my dad for decades. In fact for some people who have been part of the Bush Music club the connection goes back 50 years. So on this topic there are many people who can comment on John Dengate’s abilities much better than I. For this reason I have just grabbed a handful of comments that people have left on web sites just so we can get a sense of how his songs and how his performances affected people:
  • “John Dengate is national treasure”
  • “He is a true legend”
  • “No one says it better than a John Dengate song”
  • “A true folkie and an inspiration”
And the accolades go on and on.

The one thing he loved as much as music was his sport. He loved cricket and was a great coach to myself and many of his students in his teaching days. Cricket tests between Australia and England in particular stirred his emotions. On the weekend before he died my family caught up at my parents to celebrate my Nana’s 99
th birthday. And she is here today which we are all very grateful. The weekend that we caught up was before the 3rd Cricket test for the Ashes had started so at this point Australia were 2 nil down after 2 test matches. And when we were chatting I thought to myself, should I mention the cricket. Given how poorly Australia was performing I thought, do I ignite the bomb or do I just let it go? I couldn’t help myself. So I said “You been watching much of the cricket?” As predicted that set him off and the reason I am telling this story is not just because it was one of the last conversations I ever had with him, but because the response was so typical in that it was funny, informative and delivered like a teacher.

He said
“Do you know where Australia is currently ranked in the world test cricket rankings? They are ranked 4th.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad”
I responded

“Do y
ou know who that puts us in front of?”

“No. But I could probably work it out if I had to”
I said

“That means the only countries we are ranked higher than is Pakistan, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and New Zealand.”
In his typical school teacher way he followed this up with a question designed to test if I had been listening properly. “Now remove from this list all the countries that are ravaged by war and poverty and what country are you left with?”

“New Zealand”
I said confidently

“Now the only reason we are ranked higher than New Zealand is that half their population has taken up Australian residency”.

That was his way of saying he was not impressed with the Australian cricket team.

He loved running. In fact there were times in his life when he was an obsessive runner. It became the fuel for his physical energy to help balance his immense mental energy. He was running marathons in his 50’s and there were many times when he explained to me how running saved his life. Like many of his passions it provided the source for many great friendships.

He loved politics, teaching, good wine and good beer. He was a great activist and fought for many causes. He was delighted with himself when he found out ASIO had a file on him detailing his political activism.

He loved golf. Now up to this point my principal theory has been if you put enough energy and focus into a passion that you love, you will naturally become good at that pursuit, perhaps even an expert. But my dad and golf destroys this theory. He had a terrible swing and it’s only because he has passed away that I am game enough to say this, but he could not play golf. With that said he did have a hole in one to his name so he is one up on me there and I will pay him that.

John Dengate had a wide variety of interests but at the end of the day he was a people person and his greatest loves were his family and friends. The relationship he had with my mum was a match made in heaven. They were perfect for each other and that’s why they had a life long relationship. He was a great dad to Lachlan and I. My brother has many of my dad’s positive qualities. They have a similar sense of humour and live life with similar principles and of anyone left on earth, he is probably most like my dad. In the same way I love my brother I know my dad loved his brother. Unfortunately his brother, Robert, passed away last year. The banter between the 2 of them was always hilarious. Listening to them was like a battle of 2 great minds trying to not only prove who had the most knowledge on a particular subject, but who could wrap that knowledge up in the funniest story. They would be playing golf together right now on heaven’s best golf course. My Uncle was a very gifted sportsman so he would be carving up the golf course. My dad with his swing would be hitting every tree and every bunker and I can hear the banter between the two of them now.
“How many shots do you need to get out of that bunker?” Robert would say

“These bunkers are ridiculous”
my dad would respond “I’ve come all this way to play golf only to find out Marrickville golf course has better bunkers. Who is responsible for the course management?”

I can hear Robert responding
“Judas looks after all the hazards in heaven”.

John Dengate loved his parents with the same adoration that I love my parents. My dad’s mum turned 99 on the 26
th July and on that weekend we all got together as a family to celebrate her birthday. It’s hard to lose a friend, a father and a spouse, but I think nothing is harder than to lose a child. That pain doesn’t soften no matter what your age. I just want to thank my nana for bringing us all together on the weekend before my dad passed away. Those final conversations and moments together with my dad will be treasured for ever.

My dad also loved his grandchildren and treated my wife like his long lost daughter.

And to all the people that fill this room. He loved his friends and the interaction he had with each of you was his life blood that gave him the energy to pursue his many passions.

John Dengate was a man with many passions and a huge amount of energy for life. But the clearest memory I have of him where he seemed the most content was him sitting in the sun, after a run in Centennial Park, with a good beer surrounded by life long friends. A simple pleasure, involving a number of passions surrounded by people he loved. It didn’t need to get much more complicated than that.

Keep it simple. Don’t get distracted from doing the things you love, with the people you love. And according to John Dengate, that’s all you need to do to have a good life.

Thanks Sean.

We will now see some photos and hear two of the great songs

Dennis O'Keefe – can you lead us in Waltzing Matilda?

[photos and singing].

Well that’s pretty much it for here. We will now proceed to afternoon tea and continue sharing our wonderful memories.

But before we go I just want to say one last thing to John about his wonderful poem “The Lanes of Woolloomooloo”. John, I want you to know that hearing you recite that poem changed forever the way I looked at the many derelicts that frequented Glebe in those days and, while fewer in number, still do. And it helped me understand why my father could never talk about his wartime experiences in PNG. Today it helps me understand the issues that our returning Afghan soldiers face. That’s just one of many ways you helped me become a better person – thanks mate.


For the Wake of John Dengate, from Chris Woodland who was unable to attend

 Chris, John & Dale 2012 (Sandra Nixon photo)
Farewell old mate. Merro would say that you have gone Into The Silence, but we who are left know that your voice will never be silent. Though proudly Australian you were a true Shanachie. A wordsmith who appreciated - like the Irish - that a good command of the language was the greatest weapon available.

It was you who knew that
The Answer’s Ireland, informed us of the social ills of Bill From Erskineville; displayed your admiration of your mother with the popular and oft requested Bare Legged Kate, though your Tongue never ever Went Bungling Through Georgia. You were justly proud of your well-earned titles: the Bard of Galong and a National Treasure.

Without bias we believe you were the ideologically soundest of all! Your abhorrence of war and all things pretentious, deceptive and false; your love of what was right and what was wrong; your humour, though somewhat askew at times, was always erudite and enjoyable.

When I turned 70 you prophesised that you may not reach the same age as me who is six months older. It took five years, but, unfortunately, your prophecy came true.

You have gone
Into The Silence and joined the select company of Duke, Alan, Gay, Merro, Chris Kempster and many others of the folk fraternity.

But your voice and music will live for as long as the
waratah grows, and the wattle blooms out on the hill.

Vale John Dengate: AUSTRALIAN SON.
     Funeral Afternoon Tea for John Dengate, 9th August 2013


Tributes to John Dengate, August 2013

Click on pictures for full-screen image

 Dale & John, 1983 (Bob Bolton photo)

Some thoughts about John Dengate from Roseann Dale Dengate.
John was still in primary school at West Epping, when he started telling yarns and reciting the works of Banjo Paterson. He had a phenomenal memory and could recall traditional songs when others forgot the fourth and fifth verses late in the night. I am really going to miss that assuring prompt when singing.
His mother said he was an easy child to take anywhere as long as he had paper and pen because he would just write or sketch. At the funeral, his cousin Carol told me that one of her first memories of going to school was seeing John surrounded by a group of kids in the playground listening to his reciting or story telling  and how proud she felt that he was her big [9 year old] cousin. John was Influenced by his father Norman Dengate, when he began writing rhymes about the people and everyday life around him . Many years later wrote about playing cricket on the roads,
Over the paddocks I’ve run,
Drugged with summer cicadas song;
Drunk with freedom and sun …
. in lines from Song of Childhood.
With his passion for Australia, life with John Dengate was a wonderful adventure recorded in his polished verses. His ability to write about the foibles of humanity, including himself in aptly chosen and colourful terms was unique. His lampoons of politicians from the 1960s provided a political commentary over those years. His deep interest and incisive observations of people started with his family. He wrote verses about them all including the cats and dogs. He will be remembered for his well loved song Bare Legged Kate' about the struggles faced by a country girl. It was based on his mother Kathleen ' Kit'. Many have sung the Song of the Sheet Metal Worker, about his father from whom he was instructed about the importance of unionism in ensuring a fair share of the profits for the workers. His song and stories about his uncles in My Name's Eric Dengate capture Australian life just after the war was won.
Many were inspired by his workshops on writing about lives of one’s family with his admonition that we own our history. He was passionate about Australian history and his knowledge of the experience of the Diggers in WWI and II was not only encyclopedic, but entertainingly told. He held audiences for hours with his retelling of the details of Australian during the war years. He could often be found in the bar of a folk festival surrounded by avid listeners and it is here he would  be happiest sharing his songs with an interested small group  rather than singing to huge audiences of people wanting to be entertained ... or catering to the tastes of the mindless mob big business likes to rob.
Although he never belonged to any political party, his interests in the individual extended to the lives of politicians of all shades; indeed the history of the devious action or follies of most leaders and members of state and federal parliaments were covered by John's songs in clever parody with hilarious rhymes and curses for the arrogant and greedy.

Bush Music Club Concert Party, 1971 (Bob Bolton photo)

No subject was off limits for John and he wrote with wry humour about every aspect of the life of 'everyman' in the Australian setting including male illnesses such as rectal bleeding and bags associated with bowel cancer. His topics ranged from aspects of our lives rarely found in the text books in songs such as: The Answer's Ireland, The Battle of Castle Hill, Anti Metrics, Ballad of Les Darcy, Big Ben pies and Coopers Sparkling Ale, train trips and in Bill from Erkineville, about the difficulties faced by many workers trying to provide a home and support a family. He engaged with men and women from all walks of life and often made them feel they were his special friends.  The amazing number of tributes that have poured in certainly confirmed  these friendships.


John Dengate - a rich life
By Tony Smith*

Individual human existence has limits. While we all have a birth and a death, most of us celebrate the fact of our beginnings but resist and regret our ends as though they were not inevitable. Religions have developed ways of trying to take the sting out of death, but paradoxically, as western societies become more secular and rational, it is common to experience death ceremonies that are positive celebrations of the preceding life. 
Such was the funeral of John Dengate. Publicly, John was known as a teacher, sportsman, folksinger, busker, songwriter, raconteur, humorist and political activist. Privately, as slides displayed during his recorded rendition of ‘Song of Childhood’ demonstrated, he was a son, a brother, husband, father, grandfather and friend. As John’s son Sean said in his eulogy, his father had a good life, a rich and full life. The secret to having such a life, Sean suggested, was to keep things simple and to place your energies into the things you love. 

For John this meant rejecting the rat race and careerism and eschewing products such as cars and fancy clothing pushed by advertising. It meant giving priority to family and friends and standing firm by the values of working class Australians. 
This adherence to things simple required great determination, which John’s marathon running showed he had in abundance. In John’s case a great sense of humour helped keep his priorities in order. Growing up as he did in the years immediately following the Second World War, he was infected with that dry, sometimes bitter sense of humour often associated with the Anzac spirit. While John always managed a wry smile at the world’s general unhappiness, he did not spare himself during personal misfortunes as shown by the self-deprecating humour in songs such as Skin Cancer Blues and Rectal Bleeding Calypso.
John spent his childhood around Carlingford near Parramatta in western Sydney. In the 1950s, this was a semi-rural district with orchards and other small farms. He went to teachers’ training college in Armidale then taught in the ‘Far West’ town of Menindee. He then moved back to the city and taught at the school in the Burnside Homes at North Parramatta. He did casual teaching round the inner city and retired early to concentrate on his interests. Fans and friends are grateful for that decision because it enabled John to hone his song writing skills and put more energy into activism.

Speaking on ABC Radio, folklorist Warren Fahey said that he thought of Dengate as the successor of Henry Lawson. Both Lawson and Dengate had the ability to look at the plight of ordinary Australians and tell their stories back to them. There are distinct parallels in the words of the two poets and Lawson would certainly have enjoyed songs such as Bill from Erskineville, Poker Machine Song, Tab Punter’s Song and The Randwick Races. It is unlikely that the Northern Suburbs Crematorium has seen a coffin covered in wattle flowers before. It seems less likely that it has heard the singing of Lawson’s ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ and Banjo Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’.

Jamie Carlin, 2013  (Sandra Nixon photo)

Those attending the funeral were greeted by the strains of the concertina. It is usual to call people attending a funeral ‘mourners’ and there is no doubt that the packed assembly regretted John Dengate’s passing. However, following the example of Dale, John’s wife of almost fifty years and his sons Sean and Lachlan, his friends expressed their love of the man with laughter and occasional applause rather than tears. While a death is always tragic and reason to grieve, John’s legacy has been humour and inspiration. He will be sorely missed, but his words will not be forgotten. Already, folkies are planning tribute concerts that will feature performances of his works and works about him by his many admirers. Another criterion for attributing a good life to someone is that they left the world a better place than they found it. John Dengate certainly did that.

See also:

John Dengate singing ‘Bare Legged Kate’ at the Loaded Dog Folk Club

JAM, NSW Folk Federation: John Dengate passes away,

 Obit: John Dengate 1 August 2013,

Bush Music Club articles & photos

Shoestring Records: John Dengate Homepage,

  *Author of: ‘Master of Dissent: the Music of John Dengate’, Australian Quarterly, 76(2), March-April 2004

First published in the September 2013 Illawarra Folk Club Newsletter & used by permission.

Saying Goodbye:

I sing my songs and I say goodbye and I leave on the morning train
And I thirst for a private apocalypse as the paddocks thirst for rain.
I think of the stilted, sad good-byes and the handshakes through the years,
And it sometimes seems I have spent my life in a battle to hold back tears.
I struggle against the words ‘good-bye’;
I struggle against the pain:
I write in fear, for the day is near for saying ‘good-bye’ again.
John Dengate

It’s a farewell that you would think our old mate John Dengate had written for his own obituary. In fact he wrote it for another giant in the Australian Folk Scene, Declan Affley when he died some years ago and to me it encapsulates the real emotion that John’s work has always contained.

John died on August 1st and as he was a keen punter (songs such as the Trifecta song
and the Randwick Races reflect this) he would have appreciated the irony of saying goodbye to this world on the horses birthday. He was just two months short of his own 75th birthday.

John  at Bulli, 2009 (Sandra Nixon photo)

John was a particularly good friend of the Illawarra Folk Club and on many occasions performed at our club nights. He always stopped down here when he performed as he didn’t drive nor possess a car. Train was his usual method of transport and it was only natural that both the best and worst aspects of railways appeared in his songs (Train Trip to Guildford, The Apricot Express, The Lidcombe train and the Bus To Broken Hill). Whenever possible he performed at our tripe dinners though I can’t recall him ever writing a song about that delicacy.

I do recall however his generosity of spirit - his songs were there for everyone and he freely shared them. One of my prized possessions is a tape that John made in Alan Musgrove’s lounge room one day in the early eighties. John and Alan had a bottle of whisky (maybe two) and John played as many songs as he could remember, (Alan reckoned that John had forgotten more of his songs than most people had written) Alan recorded them on tape – they were about Bob Menzies, the Vietnam War, Joe Bjelke and a lot of songs I had never heard before (or since)

He also recorded a couple of songs for me in my bathroom (sitting on the dunny- the seat was down) because that was the best acoustics in the house. I’ve thought perhaps I should get a plaque on the door and call it the ‘Dengate Memorial Dunny’. 
John was our ‘Folk Legend’ at the Illawarra Festival - When our previous legend, Alan Scott, died almost 20 years ago the club replaced him with John. This meant he was automatically invited to every festival without having to apply. This was a good thing because he was no great shakes at filling in forms. He attended every year until ill health stopped him in 2012 and 2013. He either ran or performed in our memorial concert that we hold annually for his friend Alan Scott.

We will of course be having an annual memorial for John though at this stage we are not sure what form it will take. John’s wife Dale has given us a beer mug that she gave him in their callow youth as a trophy. It is of course an appropriate award for the Woolly Yarns Spinning Competition which John often judged and told a demonstration yarn so that yarn spinning novices knew what it was about. He also enjoyed a cold drink on a hot day, sometimes more than one as I can attest to. (Dale and my wife Bev thought we were bad for each other after a particularly bad ‘solving the problems of the World’ night at Albion Park)
The ‘Tumult and the Shouting’ has died - the packed funeral, the wake at Friends in Hand Pub in Glebe, the poetry the speeches and songs at the wake, the obituaries in all the folk magazines, A major obituary by Warren Fahey in the Sydney Morning Herald and tribute concerts are under way. The legend of John Dengate will however live on.

I know whenever some conservative politician does something outrageous – as they always do, no longer will I get a copy of the Dengate ‘take’ on the subject through the email to share with friends. But I know what folk will say over a beer on the subject - “I wonder what Dengate would have said about that?”

I wonder what Dengate would say about all the fuss that’s now being made of him. He’d probably write a poem or song about it.

Long’ Jim Chapman, one of our club members and a bush poet sent this appreciation to the newsletter;-
He was certainly an inspiration to this old Pom!  He was the bloke who actually remembered me at the next Folk Festival after the one at which I first took the stage - not only  did he remember my name, he remembered my poem! That was a tremendous encouragement, believe me!
Above all Bush  poets I've encountered he was the one who most convinced me that one can create a poem out almost anything! Listening to John reciting taught the lesson that if one had a tale to tell one should up and tell it - tall or otherwise!. Struth did he ever tell some tall ones!”

In case you didn’t catch the Herald Obituary here are some of Warren’s reflections.

He never left home without a pen and paper.

John Dengate was the closest heir to the legacy of Henry Lawson that this country has known. He was a free thinker, poet, artist, teacher, songwriter, singer and street busker, ever ready to recite or sing, and always ready to take the mickey out of politicians, misguided business leaders and any visiting sports team.

Recently, he had become a familiar city sight, playing his tin whistle and singing at the corner of George and Market streets or at Central Station. Although he played guitar, his whistle playing worked better in Sydney’s noisy streets. His beautiful old Irish and bush tunes wafted over Henry Lawson’s ‘‘ faces in the street’’ .  Like Lawson, Dengate enjoyed a drink or three but a few years ago, when he was ordered off the grog, he quit immediately. However, surgery for cancer, a weakened heart and the humiliation of the Aussie cricket team’s defeat by the Poms has dealt him a final wicket.

John Robert Dengate was born on October 1, 1938, and grew up in Carlingford.  Three of his best known songs reflect on his early life: When I Was A Lad in  Carlingford , Bare-Legged Kate, about his mother, and The Song of the Sheet-Metal Worker dedicated to his father, Norman.

There is no doubt that Dengate’s songs will live on. Many have already passed into that hazy territory where the song is known and the songwriter anonymous. He would agree to such musical freedom , especially as most of his songs were set to traditional tunes. Witty satirical verse was his stock in trade and he was brilliant in pressing the point while pressing the funny bone.

Dengate was a republican and loved Australia and its stories but he was never an angry man and preferred to make his point with humour. His last songs included Please Save Me from the Mad Monk  and an attack on Rupert Murdoch’s phone-tapping spree.

He never left home without a pen and paper, scorning computers with their spellchecks and rhyme lists. He wrote thousands of songs, satires and poems and also had a repertoire of hundreds of traditional songs and knew the great Australian poems. His life has been documented in oral history interviews at the Australian National Library, and in three songbooks and various recordings.

John Dengate is survived by Roseann (Dale), sons Lachlan and Sean, daughter-in-law’ Mandy, grandchildren Roisin and Cal, mother Kathleen and, of course, his songs.

Russell Hannah.


Gone is the seannachie, the satire that raised the blister.
Gone the sharp, intellectual, the schoolmaster we all feared,
The gales of laughter over the pint,
And the tears for the bronze smith’s acid scarred hands.
He’s gone like Declan before,
And like Declan will his voice and face stay with us.
But more of the man lives in his songs,
That agile scalpel wit, barbed ambiguities,
precision of rhyme and metre.
Grieve for this bard, but mourn with pride,
For we have known him.

Vale John Dengate.

John and Jenni Cole Warner.


Bill and I are very sad to hear the news.  One of the things I particularly appreciated about John (and Dale) was how readily they welcomed me into the folk scene.  Also, I often used to see John playing his whistle at Central as I went past in the bus on my way to work.  It was a lovely way to start the day.  The most fitting way to pay tribute seemed to be to follow his example and give a good tune another set of words, and so:

Farewell to John Dengate to the tune of The Wild Colonial Boy (the tune used by Dr Hook - sorry to be so un-folk, but it's the first one I heard.)

There was an Aussie songwriter,
His name was John Dengate.
To those of us who knew him
He was the best of mates. 
He liked a beer or two or three,
When with friends he gathered round
And when he sang his latest song
There was a joyful sound.

Lampooning politicians - it was John's favourite sport.
And there was a song of warning
When skin cancer he caught.
The track, the booze and train platforms
All featured in his songs
And many included a chorus,
So that we could sing along.

John wasn't just a songwriter,
He was a poet too.
He did the best Geebung Polo Club
I ever heard anyone do.
His own verse featured golf clubs
Sending cats to kingdom come
And Scott of the Riverina
Wasn't done better by anyone.

So farewell to our good friend John
And lots of love to Dale.
We'll  miss John at election time
And when politicians fail.
We'll miss his smile, his wicked grin,
His welcome to new Folk.
And so we gather now to say,
"Farewell" to a top bloke.

Jane Scott 2/8/13


John Dengate
A man of integrity and principle
A man of simplicity and complexity.
A man of fitness in mind and body.
A family man, a friend, a folkie, a poet,
A singer and a modern day Lawson.
A good bloke

Vale John Dengate     Geoffrey W Graham

To Dale and family--Be proud & celebrate


John Dengate - A tribute

We have few giants alive in Australia, and now we have one less. John Dengate has not however passed into the silence – he has instead embraced his forebears and now provides from a different side of the mortal divide a navigable bridge between the troubled Australia of the present and that of its Irish-Australian past. As he rejoins bare-legged Kate and the peach-pickers of his childhood, the kids at Carlingford for whose cricket games cars would drive off the single-lane bitumen road, his father the orchardist and sheet metal worker, and drinks Coopers Ale with his uncles, sprawling with them on the grass in the sun, he will continue to haunt conservative politicians, bumbling administrators, dodgy bookmakers, corrupt businessmen and tall poppies of all descriptions.

 And he won’t merely do it from the grave, he will do it with the living voice of all those he inspired, who will sing his songs, recite his poems, and create new works spurred on by his example. 

There has never been a more potent songwriter in this country, and nor has there been a more dedicated Australian. He loved this country with a passion for which words are manifestly inadequate, and he spurned with a vengeance cant and toadyism of any colour or dimension.  

 Had he been prepared to sell his genius to the highest bidder, to kow-tow to the sanitized sensitivities of television executives and advertisers, or even to make the slightest effort at self-promotion, his would be a household name across this country.  

Instead, he chose passionately to identify always with Bill from Erskinville and all his battler mates, to spurn compromise and live forever an indominable free spirit.  His is a life to celebrate. Let us do that, and by our actions do justice to his memory.

Keith McKenry 


The Sydney folk scene is much poorer now that John is gone.

I can remember BMC folkus nights in the 80s, one in particular (just one of many) where John was the featured performer - his political caricatures and satirical songs were a delight. He called that night "No matter how much you stir the dunny can, the shit always floats to the top."

Jennie Richards

Thanks so much for informing us of this sad passage. We have very fond memories of John, having first met him and Dale at Blackheath for a concert; I was doing the opening set and John and Dale invited Judy and me over to their table before performing. Afterwards we enjoyed several song parties at their wonderful house in Sydney. Please convey our condolences to Dale.

Charlie Ipcar and Judy Barrows  (Maine, USA)


I worked at UNSW for three or four years in the early two thousands, and often saw John busking at Central in Eddy Ave. It was always a pleasure to hear  him sing, and he gave out such a positive vibe it was impossible to not to be distracted and taken to a better place, if only for a moment.

Of course singing his songs in Solidarity Choir was fun too.

To his family and friends, I share your loss or this lovely man.

Best wishes,
Col Hesse


In an age where economic rationalism and self interest are presented as the only way to approach life and the community, it serves us all to remember the example John set us.

We have lost our best, but his spirit lives on. Also, the superb body of songs he left us all.


Len Neary in Sydney 


John was one of the most imaginative writers we have ever had in this
country. A genius with words and always with empathy for all people but
vitriol for phonies and parasites.

Henry, Banjo, the Duke and all of the others would be proud to work with

I don't think we will see his like again.

Bob Hart (via Chris Woodland)


Singer, songwriter and close family friend passed away last Thursday 1st August. John Dengate - you will be sorely missed, but your memories and music will live on. There’s at least one agitator in heaven now! 

John Woodland (Facebook)


From the Office of Director- General of National Library of Australia, - Anne-Marie Schwirtlich.

John was a friend to staff, as well as a musician, artist, teacher and scholar. 

Library staff knew him as an observer, wry commentator and brilliant wit, who commented with insight on society and politics through his writings. His prodigious output of songs and poems documented and described in the tradition of ballad writers and folk singers over centuries. John’s writings and memories were recorded regularly; first by John Meredith, then by Chris Woodland and others. 

He was interviewed by many people who had an interest in the origins of the Australian Folk scene. Many of the nearly 50 hours of recordings made by John are available from the Library’s website at his request, typical of his generous attitude to sharing his work. This record of his achievements is testament to the impact he had on the contemporary performance of folk music in Australia.

John’s influence through his writings has been substantial, and the recordings he made will continue to provide a fascinating insight into our social and cultural history for generations to come.

The significance of his contribution to Australian cultural life will continue to grow.

link to blog article giving list of NLA Oral History interviews with John


The Legend of John Dengate

There is a song called Train to Guildford. I heard it one night played at The Bush Music Club and I have loved it ever since.

It is one of the few songs that made me rethink what it was to be a songwriter, what topics I could broach, how I could use humor, how to structure verses and the perfection of my rhymes.

Waiting, waiting for the twenty past four to arrive

The twenty past four doesn’t run any more

the next train’s at a quarter to five

Time is money they say

So I must get to Guilford today

Did they say platform nine for the Liverpool line

Do I have to change trains on the way?

It was written by a man called John Dengate.

In 2009 I went to the Illawarra Folk Festival, I was hanging around with some bush poets when I told a stranger about my love affair with this song. My new friend stopped me mid sentence and scanned the room.

The bloke who wrote it is sitting down there,” he said, pointing to a small elderly man sitting at a table.

As a songwriter it is very rare that you get to meet one of your idols, more often than not they are from another country or another generation or even deceased, but for me here was my chance. I walked up to him and stood behind his shoulder.

Excuse me Mr Dengate,” I said, ever careful of my manners. “I just wanted to say how much I love your song Train to Guildford.

Thank you mate,” he replied, giving me a smile.

Around that time I was starting a folk night in Erskineville. The aim of the night was to combine old and young poets and performers on the same stage.

Given how influenced I had become by John’s work, it was important for me to get him to perform on the first night. I felt compelled to share this man with a young audience, to allow them to see all the brilliance that I had witnessed. I asked him over the phone one night and fortunately he agreed.

So that night, armed with his amazing wife Dale and his acoustic guitar he came along and entertained the youngish audience. He played a few traditional songs along with some of his hits like Bill from Erskineville, Bare Legged Kate as well as a recital of The Lanes of Woolloomooloo.

I was SO proud to have him there.

As he was playing I was thinking to myself, “people this IS folk, this is IT! You need to listen!”

And listen they did.

For two years I ran the club. We had singers cover Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and a sway of popular songwriters, however without a doubt the songwriter that was covered the most was John Dengate.

A year later I saw John outside a school where he used to work in Marrickville. I didn’t know he had been a primary school teacher and was buoyed by this, as now John and I had one more thing in common.

We went for a drink that night and John told me about his busking down at Central Station on a Friday morning. A few Coopers Pale Ales later I had agreed to meet him outside the Commonwealth Bank on Elizabeth Street.

At 8 o’clock I arrived. Sure enough John had been there since 6:00 tin whistle in hand. Dressed in an oversized coat he was standing amongst the crowd singing. It was a wonderful scene, here amongst the bustle of the rush hour was one of Australia’s greatest songwriters seemingly oblivious to the chaos of peak hour, and instead standing proudly amongst it all, singing his songs.

I loved it. I stood behind him and leaned against the walls, taking in his perfectly enunciated lyrics and listening closely to the melodies he piped out of his tin whistle.

Often after a song John would turn to me and explain the song’s origins. “That was an old Civil War song,” he would say.

After the busking we retired to a café for a coffee. Once seated our conversations would start small and then build and build momentum. Often it would be a piece of forgotten Australian history that John would bring up, such as the presence of US marines in Brisbane during the Second World War. John would tell stories of barbed wire across Brisbane streets, or skirmishes between the soldiers spilling out of pubs. Although starting in Brisbane in the 1940’s, our conversation would then shift across decades and continents.

Entwined were poets and verses, Shakespearean characters, soldiers, cricket stars and politicians. I could never keep up; every story was as rich and enticing as the last, full of vivid information. But there was just too much and often I would leave our meetings feeling like a soaked sponge in a bucket of water, holding only a fraction of information.

Our meetings became a semi-regular event. Sometimes we would meet for busking, other times we would meet at The Friend in Hand for a pint of Guinness. In the afternoon light we would carry on our conversations, moving from Grafton beer (Jacaranda Juice) to etymology and then across to Papua New Guinea and the Kakoda Trail.

While these conversations were going on John was still for me a singer-songwriter first and foremost. So often I would pester him for stories of songwriting. While addressing my songwriting questions inevitably a host of characters from his past would find their way into his tales.

Duke Tritton once told me,” said John one afternoon, “if the audience can’t understand the 8th word of the 16th verse, you’ve buggered the song up”.

During the school holidays I would pop over to see John and Dale for a cup of tea. As usual the conversation, while starting at school and teaching, would evolve into something else. Soon we were talking about the Catholic influence in the Labor Party in the 1950’s; we would then move onto Gough Whitlam and Pine Gap before doing a complete 360o and begin a conversation on cricket.

I can still remember John’s advice on being an opening batsman: “when the bastard at the other end tries to knock your block off, you just take it on the body and stare him down, as if you want some more.”

So why was he a legend?

For me it was in his songs. His songs are amazing, amazing like very few others are. They are the absolute cream. He used his words with such care it as if they had been sculpted instead of written. They also possess a sing-ability to them that most songwriters would die for. I have seen it and heard it so often, from my own folk club to the stages of the National Folk Festival - when someone plays a John Dengate song the crowd joins in.

His scope as a songwriter is exceptionally broad. There are songs about struggle and oppression, song about underdogs, songs about workers, songs about horse racing and songs about soldiers.

Then there was his humor. Many of John’s most famous songs involve humor, sometimes it was observational humor while often it was political satire. His political satire is arguably without equal and he turned his pen on a vast number of politicians and business figures who have littered the Australian electorates and newspapers for over five decades.

Apart from John as an artist, part of the legend stems from John as a character. He was a man who stood for something. He was a man of principles and beliefs. These beliefs, while permeating his songs and his poems, were also lived out every day by John. He didn’t just write union songs, he stood for unions, spoke for unionism and was proud of it. In the same way he wrote songs that mocked big business and economic rationalism. These were not issues exclusive to John’s songs, they were beliefs he held and adhered to everyday.

Some of the last words John wrote reflect the anti-establishment beliefs he held and which were part of this legend of character.

We won’t surrender, won’t give in, although our hair is graying;

We come from tough rebellious kin…

Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win…

We go on disobeying.

The last time I saw John was during the Easter holidays this year. We were sharing a cup of tea when I asked him, “what are you John? Are you a singer/songwriter? Are you a storyteller? Are you a poet? Are you a unionist? Are you a cricket tragic? Are you rebel? What are you?”

John paused for a brief moment, thought about it and said. “I’m an educator.”

John Dengate, my inspiration and friend died on the 1st of August 2013, just shy of his 75th birthday. I was shocked and saddened when I heard he had passed.

Goodbye Mr Dengate, songwriter, hero, rebel, husband, father, teacher, humorist, satirist, unionist, cricketer, golfer, poet, friend … and educator

Cj Shaw

11th August 2013

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